Thursday, December 19, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

It’s broke – fix it!
A former public service chief unloads

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Former head of the public service Martin Parkinson has offered an acute diagnosis of what is going wrong with politics, in a podcast conversation with Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy. It’s compulsory listening for anyone wondering WTF has happened this past decade. Unplugged after a 40-plus year career that put him at the centre of the biggest reforms undertaken in this country, from the GST to the carbon price, Parkinson observes that if there is one takeout for him it is “how ill-prepared ministers are to become ministers”. Parkinson criticises the ubiquitous career path, from student politician to unaccountable staffer to poorly informed backbencher to – all of a sudden – minister shouldering awesome national responsibility. As Australia’s problems pile up while the Morrison government perfects the art of doing as little as possible – about the economy, about climate, about constitutional recognition – Parkinson delivers his blows in the dignified language of a career public servant.

Some standout highlights from the discussion: Parkinson does not believe the public service tradition of giving “frank and fearless” advice to government is dead, and he urges public servants to keep giving it. He also believes that, while Scott Morrison has a sophisticated view of the role of the public service under the Westminster system, too many members of his government have a dismissive attitude – summarised as “we’ll do the thinking, you do the doing” – which undermines both policy development and implementation. Most ministerial advisers, Parkinson laments, don’t understand the Westminster system at all and remain completely unaccountable, particularly since the government has rejected a key recommendation from the Thodey review of the public service, to impose a code of conduct on them. Parkinson criticises populist politicians who pretend there are easy solutions to difficult policy problems – and we can see the results of their failure everywhere. 

On climate, Parkinson says the decade’s failures have gotten so bad that business will not wait on the Commonwealth any longer, fearing a combination of mitigation risk that will leave legacy assets stranded, adaptation risks as the costs of inaction mount, reputational risk as institutional investors become more concerned (and on that note today’s Chanticleer column points to [$] the massive inflows to industry super funds this year), and liability risk as climate criminals start getting sued. Parkinson is scathing about the Greens’ decision to vote down Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme in 2009 – admitting to a “visceral dislike” of the minor party – and believes Tony Abbott as incoming prime minister in 2013 had political debts, which meant he was obliged to get rid of anything to do with climate change. That included Parkinson, who was then Treasury secretary but was formerly head of the climate change department that developed the Rudd emissions trading scheme, which was in turn based on work he’d done on the Shergold review under the Howard government, at a point where there was a major-party consensus on the best way to address climate change. 

Parkinson’s observations come at a time of reflection in Australia politics, and after the ANU Australian Election Study revealed trust in government had sunk to an all-time low, with 75 per cent of people agreeing that “people in government look after themselves”. Crikey’s Bernard Keane argued [$] that it showed Australia’s political class was “no longer fit for purpose”. The Australia Institute’s chief economist, Richard Denniss, put a fine point on it last week, tweeting that “Morrison’s denial re the need to do more to fight bushfires is consistent with his denial of the need to stimulate the economy, reduce emissions or fight corruption in Canberra. His government isn’t just post-truth, it’s post governing.”

Scott Morrison is entitled to have his holiday – although Lara Worthington getting stuck in on Twitter with #wherethebloodyhellareyou has got to hurt – but his do-nothing, footy-watching, daggy-dad routine is not going to cut it in 2020.


“As one of many, I think a growing number of Australians who are incredibly concerned and embarrassed about what we’ve done to these people … most of their youth has been taken away, and they’ve got very little hope going forward … I’ve met them. Seen the pain. Bring it to an end. Let them go.”

Former Socceroo Craig Foster tweets in support of the asylum seekers remaining in indefinite detention in PNG and Nauru.

“Blaming climate change for the current spate of bushfires ignores the fact that these bushfires have proven almost impossible to control once they got going. This is because they are burning in heavy fuels dried by drought.”

Roger Underwood, chairman of the Perth-based Bushfire Front, attacks the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, apparently ignoring the fact that drought is also linked to global warming.

What is Labor doing on coal?
Anthony Albanese says ending Australian coal exports won’t halt climate change. He says we need to cut emissions, but Adani should get on with it and start digging in the Galilee Basin. Karen Middleton on how Labor is resetting its coal rhetoric.

The drop in the unemployment rate in the month of November, taking it to 5.2 per cent, the same level as six months ago.

“The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) has today accepted Equinor’s environment plan for exploratory petroleum drilling in the Great Australian Bight, which represents the second of four approvals required before activity can commence. The first approval was granted in 2011 … Under Commonwealth legislation, energy companies must have a petroleum title, an accepted environment plan, well operations management plan and facility safety case before they can undertake any offshore oil and gas activity.”

The regulator that approved the Montara well in the Timor Sea, which in 2009 was the source of Australia’s worst oil slick, approves drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

The list

At the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast, Scott Morrison said “the great challenges we face in this world are ones that we need to continue to bring up in prayer”. But which great challenge will need more than the PM’s thoughts and prayers? Complete the dot-to-dot to find out.

“It’s taken the design team a year to model the contours of the floor sections with software, cut them by hand, procure and fit out pump systems and lighting rigs, and source more than 100 tonnes of sand, gravel, pebbles, rocks and boulders. The resulting installation is a kind of canyon, greeting visitors with a small pool at the entrance before grading 44 metres back and 4 metres uphill towards the wellspring. Curator Geraldine Barlow and her team are aware that visitors are going to get tactile with this work.”

“It’s just hypocrisy, isn’t it? It’s nothing to them to walk over some people to achieve their dreams … They run a dreadful business and I use that word deliberately. It’s a business, not a church.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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